Wow! That was the first word that went through my mind (and most likely out of my mouth) when I rounded a bend in the road and saw Alabama Hills for the first time. As I mentioned in my last post, I had never heard of this place. It surprises me actually, since I was a resident of California for more than fifteen years. In my own defense, I can only think of two times I traveled to the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, but still… to not even hear of it???
It was a chance meeting with two guys I visited with in Death Valley that led me to this unique landscape. Since I’d never been there, and had no way of researching anything about it while off-grid in Death Valley, I made a stop at the visitors center in Lone Pine which was right along my route on Hwy-395. While there I not only inquired about Alabama Hills, but other places I should not miss while there. As it turns out, Alabama Hills is on BLM land, with plenty of wide-open spaces and free camping. I LOVE free camping! It was all dry-camping of course… no utilities… but the weather was mild enough both day and night to make that quite bearable.
With notes and directions in hand I drove a few miles up Hwy-395, turned left on Whitney Portal Road and within a mile or two knew I’d found yet another precious gem. A good many of the remarkable destinations I’ve visited were just that… destinations… researched and planned. Every now and then I luck out and find those gems on my way from one place to the next, but often I find out about them while conversing with others along the way.
The pavement ends very quickly when you roll into these hills, and there are literally hundreds of places to pull over and camp. Since it was mid-week I pretty much had the place to myself, leaving me lots of options. Rather than drive my motorhome down an unknown dirt road I pulled over where there was space, unhooked my car, and cruised the hills for awhile. Although I was tempted by several I decided on the spot in the image below for a few reasons… 1) It was very close to where the pavement ended saving me off-roading in The Beast, 2) It kept me closer to town which is where I’d have to go to work and/or use my cell phone, 3) It was far enough off the road to remain quiet and relatively dust free once the weekenders showed up, and 4) It was a killer site that I could easily fit into!
I mean seriously!!! This was the view from my campsite!!! Note the rugged peaks of Mount Whitney (farthest back at the right.) It doesn’t look like it from this angle, but Whitney is the highest mountain peak in the continental United States at 14, 505 feet.
Once settled in to our enviable site amongst the rocks I loaded the girls and my gear in the car and went for a drive through the hills. Every turn in the road led to another spectacular view. Alabama Hills is one of those places I’d love to see in another season… in this case it would be deep winter.
The following morning I drove though the hills before sunrise in search of some great photo ops. Found them!
Shortly after, I visited the Lone Pine Film History Museum to get the scoop on the rich movie history in these hills and was really quite amazed by what I learned. Since the early 1920s more than 150 movies and about a dozen television shows have been filmed here, including Hopalong Cassidy, The Gene Autry Show, and The Lone Ranger. Classics such as Gunga Din, Springfield Rifle, The Violent Men, Bad Day at Black Rock, and parts of How the West Was Won were filmed here too. More recently Tremors, Gladiator, Iron Man, and Django Unchained were filmed (in part) in these hills. It wasn’t that long ago I watched Django for the first time, and shortly after leaving these hills (and plugging in to electricity) I rented it to watch again. It was amusing to see so many scenes I’d become very familiar with during my visit.
While out I also took a drive up to Cerro Gordo, a ghost town now, but once a thriving mining community. This place was much more remote than I anticipated… 21 miles up a steep, windy and often rough dirt road high into the Inyo Mountains. Once there I enjoyed a semi-private and very casual tour with the only other visitor who braved the trail that day. Robert, caretaker and part owner in the property, was very informative and full of interesting tales of the days-gone-by in this little town. Apparently shoot-outs over card games and such didn’t just happen in the movies! Interestingly, by 1915 the Cerro Gordo mines had produced some $15 million worth of ore, more than any other source of silver, lead and zinc in California at that time. It’s hard not to wonder what life would have been like when I visit places like this.
That afternoon, with clouds adding a whole new look to the landscape, we drove through the Alabama Hills once again. When I say we I’m referring to me and “the girls” or “roadies” as I like to call them. Jazzy and Sadie are almost always along for the ride. And in the BLM land they weren’t banned from the trails so they got to hike with me to Mobius Arch… a cool place to capture the contrast of the adjoining landscapes.
The following day remained cloudy and I spent much of it working at a little coffee shop/deli in town. When I’m camped off-grid I drink more coffee and tea than normal because coffee shops usually mean free wifi. In the case of tiny little Lone Pine it was also a great place to observe the local characters, and there were several.
When I say “working” I’m sure there are few who grasp what that entails for me. What I “do” out here is far more involved than most would imagine, and much of it does require time on the internet. Sharing my tale is obviously reliant on the internet, but researching is key to my travels; where I’m going… adventures I might find there… where I should camp. While writing I’m constantly researching and looking for interesting tidbits about where I have been… historical facts, geological facts, and identifying birds and other critters along the way. It all involves the internet. That afternoon one of my tasks was researching places I hoped to visit the following day…Manzanar and the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in particular.
I drove back into the hills just in time for some dramatic lighting near the end of the day.
The next morning I headed north for what I refer to as a “road trip”, which is funny only because this entire adventure is a road trip. My “road trips” are journeys out and about in “Zippy”, my trusty little all-wheel-drive Honda CRV… often to destinations I could not reach in “The Beast”.
My first stop for the day was Manzanar, a “war relocation center” (internment camp) that housed more than 10,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. There are numerous artifacts on display at the Interpretive Center, as well as an interesting self-guided driving tour through the grounds. There’s not a whole lot left of the place since most of the buildings were relocated or sold for scrap after its closure in 1945, but it is well worth a stop if you find yourself traveling through the area.
My next destination was the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, home to the oldest known living trees. The steep and windy forest road off Hwy-168 took me high into the White Mountains with panoramic views of the valleys on both sides and the entire Sierra Nevada Mountain Range to the west. I hoped to make it to both Schulman Grove, home of THE oldest known tree… Methuselah (more than 4,570 years old) and Patriarch Grove, home of the largest bristlecone in the world… the Patriarch.
Imagine my disappointment when I came to a locked gate a mile or two shy of Schulman Grove after the long trek I’d made to get there! “Winter Closure” it read. When I stepped out to stretch my legs and give the girls a break I noticed a small additional sign… “hikers welcome”. I couldn’t see beyond a bend in the road, but I knew the grove couldn’t be far so I grabbed my gear, slipped past the gate and continued my trek up the mountain on foot. The girls happily cruised along off-leash since there was no one else around. They were especially thrilled when we came upon the reason for the road closure… snow!! It’s been two years since these two got to play in the snow, and they were thrilled! After happily scampering about in it for a bit they both flopped down in unison and rolled in it for a while. Quite a happy site to see.
We hiked about two miles up the mountain… to 10,000 ft elevation… and finally arrived at Schulman Grove. There I discovered that Methuselah, the tree I had come to see, was unmarked for its protection… hidden in plain site amongst thousands of others!
And here’s a news flash! While researching I just stumbled upon an interesting new fact! Apparently an older tree was discovered last year amongst the same grove, out-reigning Methuselah! This one, yet un-named it seems, is 5,064 years old! Here’s some more Wikipedia facts about this forest.
Although we walked around a bit at the grove, we did not do the 4-mile hike around it since we still had a two mile hike back to the car and a seventy mile return road trip ahead of us. Needless to say we did not make it to Patriarch Grove since it was several miles farther up the closed road.
One last stop simply because it caught my eye on the way back south on Hwy-395… Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery. Unfortunately it was closed, but I took the opportunity to stretch my legs and strolled around the grounds for a bit.
Since I had not yet driven the entire loop through Alabama Hills I took the lesser traveled route in from the north… Moffat Ranch Road. This rough bit of dirt road followed along Hogback Creek which provided trees and vegetation in an otherwise parched landscape. It was there amongst the shade trees that I happened upon a small herd of mules. I stopped of course… and made some new friends.
My unplanned visit to Alabama Hills and the surrounding area was well worth the stop-over without doubt, and allowed me to discover more of the eastern side of the mountains. Add this stay to my unexpected delay in Mammoth Lakes last fall and I’ve now covered a good portion of the Eastern Sierras! Unfortunately several spots I’d hoped to see were already closed for the winter during my journey through last fall, and were still closed while here in the spring… Whitney Portal, Tioga Pass and Devils Postpile to name a few. (My last trek along the Eastern Sierras can be found here- Continuing South Through California and Nevada.)
The following day I had no choice but to travel some distance south to get to the other side of the mountains. My next planned destination was Yosemite, but I decided to hunker down in Bakersfield for a few days to get some work done knowing I’d likely be off-grid yet again while camped in or near Yosemite. A couple I’d met along the way told me about Orange Grove RV Park which was convenient to my route, so that’s where I ended up. I payed for one night upon arrival and settled in to my site. Much to my amazement I had one of the best WiFi connections I’ve encountered on my journey! I was so pleased in fact, that I went to the office the following morning and upped my stay to a week!
I don’t often share RV park reviews but I have to add that, although I tend to aim toward national and state parks along the way… preferring natural settings and nearby hiking trails… this park was ideal for my needs. In addition to the great WiFi, it’s spacious and extremely well maintained, and the staff is very helpful and friendly. What I found most unique is how “transient” the park is. It is obviously a convenient and popular stop-over for “snowbirds” as they flock south for the winter and back north once the frozen tundra they call home has thawed. I met many friendly folks from Washington, Oregon and Canada while there, and few stayed more than one night before continuing their trek north.
Sadly it was while I was camped there, ready to dive deep into work-mode and whittle away at the never ending list of things to do, that I discovered a major blog meltdown. I’ll spare you the details, but dealing with it sucked up most of my week and caused me a huge amount of anguish and frustration. Needless to say I accomplished little on my list. Please note that the blog meltdown I’m referring to, among other things, broke the connection to my entire list of “followers” who were signed up for email notifications and RSS feeds. I have no way of retrieving the list so if you were on it you will need to sign up for it again.
On my way north to Yosemite I spent some time in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Many road closures kept me from getting very deep into these parks, but what I experienced is well worth sharing. Watch for those images and tales soon! Today, as soon as I hit the “publish” button on this post, I’m scooting up the highway to Lassen Volcanic National Park!
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